There’s been a lot of buzz about the Netflix summer thriller Stranger Things, and for good reason: nostalgia. From the score and the titles to the production design, the photography, and the direction, the series’ unabashed homage to the 1980s and the era’s great filmmakers is the perfect escape from an election season that’s more terrifying than even John Carpenter could imagine.
The early 1980s was a curious and wonderful time to be alive. The middle class was robust, there was no 24-hour news, and nerds were still, well, nerds. Homes were messy, food wasn’t “clean,” and, as we’ve all seen through relentless social media memes, kids ran loose all day with no adult supervision — and usually survived.
Setting their series in a middle-American suburb circa 1983, creators Ross and Matt Duffer (Wayward Pines) assemble a pastiche of the period’s most iconic storytelling through their careful channeling of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Hughes. And with its near-perfect ratio of government conspiracy and scary monster to tract-home décor and awkward youth, Stranger Things has shown summer television who’s boss.
The story begins in familiar territory: a basement playroom where four dweeby boys sit around a table, engrossed in the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. This is when we get our first glimpse of casting director Carmen Cuba’s genius, especially where Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and his adorable, semi-toothless smile are concerned.
It’s all fun and games until one of the boys disappears while riding his bike home after dark. This happens in the first episode and sets the pace for the brisk eight-episode series. Soon we are introduced to a disturbed young girl with telekinetic superpowers, the MKUltra-esque research laboratory she’s escaped from, and an inter-dimensional plant/alien hybrid that is terrorizing the town.
It doesn’t take long for the missing boy’s science-geek friends and hysterical mother (Winona Ryder) to team up with the town’s scrupulous police chief (David Harbour) and connect the dots for some old-fashioned, spine-chilling sleuthing with some Hughes-style teen romance to boot.
While Ryder’s presence adds an extra burst of throwback to the nostalgia factor, her shrill histrionics bring an unwelcome cringe to an otherwise adequate performance, one that has been excessively praised by critics. The real stars, of course, are the kids, who, with their nuanced quirks, contradict the notion that youth is wasted on the young.
For those already mourning the end of a show that could realistically be binge-watched in a few days, Netflix has announced a sequential second season. And if you thought there were no loose ends, think again. (Spoilers ahead.) Remember when Mike excused himself from the dinner table to pull a slug out of his throat? What about Eleven’s mom and Eleven for that matter? We didn’t actually see her die. Same goes for Barb. There’s still much to sort through, and the Duffer brothers have promised an even more sinister follow-up.
There may be a gazillion TV channels to choose from today, but the best stuff is coming from aggregates such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, not traditional networks. Whether or not you lived through the late ’70s to early ’80s, Stranger Things will make you nostalgic for a time when bad taste and terrible hair were okay, and the scariest stories were listed as fiction in the local library’s card catalog rather than fact in the daily news.